ISTANBUL, Turkey - Just back from the opening ceremony of the World Championship, where Cirque du Soleil was the opening act in what was quite an impressive presentation by the Turkish Basketball Federation.
So they get an attaboy from me, and the Turkish population in general got the same thing from Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski earlier in the day.
"Even though there’s 13 million people, you can see where people have a lot of pride. I mean it’s so clean, there’s no graffiti. Flags for their country are all over. You feel like you are in a country where people are proud to be a part of it, and it’s a beautiful country, especially where we’re staying. It's very unique, especially since I’ve never been to Turkey," Coach K said.
The Americans are staying at a five-star hotel on the Bosphorus River, and it is the first time in the country for almost all of them. One exception is Lamar Odom, who was here in 2004 with the U.S. Olympic team when they played two warmup games prior to the Athens Olympics, one of which gave a hint into what they were in for a few days later.
"We were there on a Saturday or Sunday, we were driving down this main street, and all you see for miles and miles and miles were people out with their families. I got to learn what was important to the people of Istanbul. You don't go too many places where you see a whole community outside," Odom said back in New York when the team was still in training camp. "It wasn't a block party, just people enjoying themselves. It really stuck with me. Great place. I'm looking forward to going back. Great people."
The Americans are now settled in for an 18-day stay, with their first game Saturday night local time (noon ET, ESPN Classic, ESPN3.com) against Croatia.
Here's the scouting report on Croatia that chief scout Tony Ronzone gave me Friday afternoon at Abdi Ipekci Arena:
"It's a team that’s done very well early in tournaments. If you look at their matches, they always win three or four games right in a row. They’re a team that with Roko Ukic is very streaky, talented. They’ve played together for many, many years. They’re going to play this game trying to win it and attack us. Marko Tomas is one of the best European guards, he can score, he does a lot of stuff, Ante Tomic of the Utah Jazz, he’s a very skilled player at 7-foot-2, more of a finesse type of guy. They’re big, they’ve got three bigs, so they’re going to be tough."
I asked Ronzone more about Croatia's bigs, because teams with size are the types of teams that can potentially give the undersized Americans a problem -- despite what results are being predicted by folks like myself.
"Marco Banic is kind of like a Carlos Boozer type, physical, tough, beats you up, pounds you. So they're more of a finesse team, but with those two guys they tend to get physical. But they’re more kind of like a U.S. team. They get after you a little bit, they streak shoot, and they have a guard that can go for 40 on you if you let him get hot, Marko Popovic. He's put up big numbers over in Europe, so you've got to respect those guys.
"I think they’re going to start out man-to-man on defense, and if things don’t go well they’ll drop into a zone. I think we’re going to see a lot of zone, I really do. As we continue in this tournament we’re going to see more and more zone. We haven’t seen it at all so far," Ronzone said.
With 24 hours left before the start of the tournament, Team USA was a 3/2 favorite on Internet gambling websites. Spain is the second choice at 3-1, Greece is third at 13-1, and Turkey has moved up to the No. 4 favorite at 22-1. Argentina dropped to 34-1 after the Philadelphia 76ers told Andres Nocioni to sit out to recuperate his sprained ankle, making them a longer shot than Serbia (23-1) and Brazil (31-1).
And if you think the United States cannot lose, you should consider these remarks made Friday by Krzyzewski. He was the coach when the Americans went into the 2006 World Championship as the overwhelming favorite (and he was the coach of the 1990 team, as AP's Brian Mahoney points out), and he learned the hard way that strange things can happen when the ball is a Molten instead of a Spalding.
"Last time, I thought our culture wasn’t set enough," Krzyzewski said. "We were young, and we’re a little bit younger now, but we have a better culture in place so we have a greater chance to win.
"But it’s not a done deal. There are a lot of good teams here. We’re not taking anything for granted. We know that we can get beat here."